The Fate/ series spans an impressive range of genres; beginning with an erotic visual novel (!) in 2004, it’s carried its unique narrative brand — focusing on events called Holy Grail Wars — through dungeon crawlers, JRPGs, fighting games, and more. The latest, ambitiously named game in the series — Fate/EXTELLA: The Umbral Star — takes it into the hack-and-slash genre and, thanks to XSEED and Marvelous’ Switch port of the recent PS4 release, to a Nintendo system for the first time. We got to go hands-on with this upcoming Switch title at XSEED’s booth at E3 this year, and had a great time — though at first glance it looks derivative, there are a lot of little touches here that make Fate worth a second look.

Fate/EXTELLA is a ‘battlefield hack and slash’, where you’ll control your character from a third-person perspective and slice your way through hordes of mob enemies in a bid to reach the boss. Along the way you’ll need to conquer different sectors of the map, by beating enough baddies to draw out the ‘Aggressors’ which control them — fell the Aggressors, and the sector is yours. 

In that sense, it’s very similar to the Dynasty Warriors/Musou games, and also to another game we tried out the day before — Fire Emblem Warriors. The basic controls certainly echo these titles; ‘Y’ performs a quick but weak attack, ‘X’ handles the heavier hits, and ‘A’ unleashes your ‘Extella Maneuver’ — a special attack that damages every enemy in the area, and can be chained as many times you hit the button (and have charge meter for!).

Fate/EXTELLA has a large roster of playable characters: 16 total, with 3 main characters and 13 with smaller side-stories. We played through a single stage as both Nero — the pyromaniac Roman emperor reborn as an anime heroine in a crimson dress — and the ‘Master’ character stored insider her ring. This dynamic between Master (your avatar-style player character) and ’Servants’ (the various bishōjo’d historical figures you’ll control, including King Arthur, Alexander the Great, and Medusa) is something that really sets Fate apart, and we loved what we saw of it in our demo. The conversations between our character and Nero helped flesh out the story and their relationship as we rampaged through enemy hordes, and the dialogue — as we’ve come to expect from XSEED — was well-written and surprisingly cheeky. The historical/mythological nature of the characters means they each have unique ways of speaking, too, and in the stage we played we saw Nero’s imperial elegance juxtaposed with Irish hero Cú Chulainn’s rough and raucous wording.

Those conversations can continue after the action as well: a ‘My Room’ mode that we got a brief look at lets you talk over story beats and deepen bonds with your Servant in one-on-one chats in the Fire Emblem support conversations vein. You can also swap your Servant’s clothes here, and since the Switch version includes all costume DLC from the PS4 version, as well as some brand new threads, there are plenty to choose from. In terms of style, they reminded us of the modules designed for Hatsune Miku and friends in the Project Diva games: bright, bold, and appealingly eccentric.

Back on the battlefield, Fate/EXTELLA plays a bit differently from its influences in a few key ways. First, Nero was a much nimbler heroine than we’d expected given other games in the genre; a super-speedy dash (mapped to ‘R’) and sky-high jump (‘B’) both let us zip around enemies effortlessly, and those maneuvers can be combined into acrobatic air-dashes that felt fantastic. These also made it easy to zoom out of harm’s way and readjust, and in that sense Fate seems to give more ‘breathing room’ than similar games. 

Second, there’s an appreciable difference in level layout that helps focus the action. Whereas Musou games like Hyrule and Fire Emblem Warriors have bounded outposts connected by footpaths and corridors, Fate’s sectors are discontinuous — a map will consist of several different sectors, but the paths between them are warps rather than routes. Reaching a warp point of a sector (generally found at one or several compass directions of the room) and pressing ‘B’ will send you flying onward to the next one, with no enemies or obstacles between. It sounds like a small change, but it makes a big difference; not only are the airborne sequences awesome to watch, it also makes for a faster-paced feel, and zipping around the map from sector to sector — slicing up foes at brief stops before dashing off to the next area — is a real rush.

Finally, for all its complex story and mythological grounding, Fate/EXTELLA doesn’t seem to take itself too seriously, and the lighthearted tone of the mission we played stood out from the wartime drama of Dynasty Warriors and its ilk. About halfway through the level, for instance, we heard the far-off sound of peppy J-Pop — not exactly expected given the Greco-Roman ruins setting the stage so far — and followed it to a mid-level boss: a digital idol gone bad. We had to fight off her loyal fans — robots brainwashed into doing her evil bidding — as the catchy anime ED-esque theme song played over the action; we were smiling the whole time.

We didn’t make it all the way to the end boss of the demo level, but what we were able to play left us excited for the full release. Fate/EXTELLA looked great and ran smoothly, and while we were playing in handheld mode the docked Switch at the kiosk next to us seemed to be doing a fine job of keeping up with the action as well. Our only disappointment was the lack of multiplayer — hack and slashes are always more fun with a friend! — but a Free Mode that lets you drop any character into any mission should help provide a bit of replay value after the main story’s done.

Marvelous is launching Fate/EXTELLA: The Umbral Star on July 21st in Europe, with XSEED handling the North American release on July 25th.